Famed plagiarist of the "big eye" waif paintings, actually created by his wife, Margaret Keane.
Walter Keane, a flamboyant 1950s and '60s North Beach artist best known for portraits of sad, doe-eyed children that became a worldwide sensation, died Dec. 27 at an Encinitas hospital. He was 85.
Mr. Keane had been suffering from lung and kidney disease, said Joan Keane, an ex-wife.
The creative authorship of the famous "Keane" pictures, which started out depicting big-eyed waifs and runaways but later graduated to big-eyed dogs, giraffes, geishas and grown adults, was the subject of a decades-long controversy. Both Mr. Keane and his second wife, Margaret Keane, also a San Francisco painter, claimed to be the creator.
The stakes were high: millions of dollars in copyright fees. By the mid- 1960s, Keane pictures were among the best-loved art in the world, despite being derided by many critics as kitsch.
The dispute came to a climax in a 1986 lawsuit, when a federal judge in Honolulu ordered both Walter and Margaret Keane to paint pictures for the jury.
Margaret produced a likeness of a big-eyed child in 54 minutes. Mr. Keane declined to paint, saying he had a sore shoulder.
There was also a scheduled Union Square "paint-off" in 1970, covered in Life magazine, where Margaret again produced a painting but Walter failed to attend.
Herb Caen, who knew Mr. Keane from his North Beach days, concluded in a 1991 column that Margaret Keane was the real painter.
Until the end, though, Mr. Keane insisted he was the creator of the big- eyed children. In 1991, he told The Chronicle, "I painted the waifs of the world." Mr. Keane was born Oct. 7, 1915, in Lincoln, Neb. He was one of 10 children from his father's second marriage and grew up in a white clapboard house near the center of the city. As a child, he made money by selling shoes. Friends said in later life he proved to be a great promoter and salesman. He moved to Los Angeles in the early '30s and attended Los Angeles City College. He also spent time in Paris as a young man and told friends later in life that he had studied art there.
The inspiration for the big eyes, he said, came from seeing despairing street children in war-torn Berlin after World War II. In San Francisco during the postwar Bohemian era, Mr. Keane cut a dashing figure in North Beach.
His sometimes raucous escapades were noted in newspaper columns, including an altercation with Hungry I club owner Enrico Banducci that ended in court with Mr. Keane's acquittal on charges of disorderly conduct.
Witnesses in that case testified that he had thrown a woman across the room, thrown a telephone book at Banducci and crawled on the floor with a hat fashioned from a napkin.
"He had a very colorful life," said Joan Keane.
Mr. Keane is survived by his ex-wives, Barbara Mearns of Carmel, Margaret Keane of Sebastopol, and Joan Keane of Vancouver, British Columbia; daughter Susan Hale Keane of Washington state, son Sacha Michel Keane of Vancouver, and daughter Chantal Keane Brasset of Victoria, British Columbia; and three grandchildren.
There will be a private family service Jan. 20 in Vancouver.
"United States Census, 1920," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MCKJ-YQW : accessed 16 April 2017), Walter S Keane in household of William R Keane, Lincoln Ward 3, Lancaster, Nebraska, United States; citing ED 64, sheet 15A, line 15, family 320, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 996; FHL microfilm 1,820,996.
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